BA Politics and Modern History / Course details

Year of entry: 2020

Course unit details:
Fire, Famine and Flood: An Environmental History of England, 1500-1800

Unit code HIST31712
Credit rating 20
Unit level Level 3
Teaching period(s) Semester 2
Offered by History
Available as a free choice unit? No


English environments underwent fundamental transformations between 1500 and 1800. Common land was enclosed, wetlands were drained, and animals were hunted with renewed vigour. The same period witnessed the rise of new ways of conceiving of the environment: Catholics and Protestants read rival religious meanings from ‘God’s great book in Folio’ – the  landscape; natural philosophers began to ‘tame nature’ with new ways of knowing the physical world through abstraction and experimentation; agriculturalists sought to alter and instrumentalise natural processes for economic gain; and later, the ‘economy of nature’ became a source for delight, contemplation and retreat for a rising branch of scientific enquiry, natural history. Meanwhile, overseas expansion, encounter and exchange fundamentally altered and intensified the flow of people, plants, animals and disease between the Europe and the ‘New World’. Underpinning all of these changes were the deep contexts of large-scale climatic, demographic and economic change. England experienced the so-called Little Ice Age, uneven population growth and closer national and international market integration across the early modern centuries. In this course, students will learn how historical narratives can be reinterpreted and reoriented by adopting an environmental perspective, and will explore how climate, weather, plants and animals can be integrated into cultural, social, political and religious history.

Making use of the multiple disciplinary perspectives that inform contemporary environmental history, this course will introduce students to a new way of approaching their subject. The first weeks introduce students to a variety of crucial physical and cultural environmental contexts – from climatic changes to perceptual revolutions in religion and natural philosophy. In subsequent weeks, students will explore specific environmental issues, such as the environmental history of early modern ‘natural disasters’ and the social, political and ecological impacts of urban fire and smoke.



HIST31711 is only available to students on History-owned programmes; Euro Studies programmes; CLAH-owned programmes; and History joint honours programmes owned by other subject areas (please check your programme structure for further details).

This module is available only to students on History-owned programmes; Classics and Ancient History programmes; History and American Studies; and Euro Studies programmes.



  • To assess the complex, contingent, and independent roles of the environment and the non-human in history.
  • To provide a broad understanding of early modern environmental changes in their historical context.
  • To explore and analyse the historical relationships between society, culture, the economy and the environment.
  • To challenge traditional understandings of the early modern period by approaching it through the young and rapidly growing historiography of environmental history.
  • To explore beyond the disciplinary boundaries of history, borrowing methods and perspectives from across the humanities, social sciences, and environmental sciences.

Learning outcomes

By the end of this course students will be able to:


Indicative Seminar Schedule

Week 1            Introduction: what is environmental history?

Week 2            Deep contexts: the Little Ice Age and early modern climate change

Week 3            ‘God’s great book in Folio’: religion and the environment

Week 4            Taming nature: natural philosophy and the control of the environment

Week 5            Muddy waters: wetlands and drainage in the seventeenth century

Week 6            Pests, pets, predators and prey: humans and other animals

Week 7            Fire, smoke and filth? Disease and the urban environment

Week 8            Tempests: storms, floods, famines and other unnatural disasters

Week 9            The tragedy of the commons: enclosure and improvement

Week 10          Expansion, encounter and exchange: the environmental impacts of colonialism

Week 11          The ‘great economist’: nature and natural history in the eighteenth century

Teaching and learning methods

The course will be taught through a weekly three-hour seminar, in which students will listen and respond to a presentation from their peers, work in small groups on a variety of reading and source-related tasks, contribute to a full-class discussion and/or debate, and receive a lecture. Outside of the weekly seminar, students will be required to read and respond to tutor-selected primary and secondary reading, with non-compulsory extension reading lists available to all students. Each week one group of students will be required to prepare a presentation outside of class, and another will be required to contribute to our collaborative online timeline of environmental change.

In class, small group work will focus on the discussion of particular concepts, readings and sources. Students will discuss their own ideas with their peers, and learn from those of others, giving them an opportunity to reflect on their own study practices, knowledge and understanding. Small group exercises will be fed back to the class as a whole.

Full class discussions will revolve around each week’s major themes and questions. Where appropriate, this will take the form of a manufactured debate in which students will be assigned positions, required to make a case, and respectfully and critically respond to arguments made by their peers.

Students will also have access to a dedicated additional office hour for this module in which they will be encouraged to meet individually with the tutor to discuss their ideas and progress on the course.

The course will make use of Blackboard. Required reading and reading lists will be made available on Blackboard. All assignments will be submitted through Blackboard and TurnItIn, with written feedback returned via Blackboard and oral feedback through optional tutor meetings.

Knowledge and understanding

  • Identify the key environmental changes that took place in England across the early modern period.
  • Distinguish between the different ways early modern people perceived, valued and used the natural environment.
  • Understand the relationships between economic, social, cultural and environmental changes from a historical perspective.
  • Critically engage with claims made both about and with past environments, analysing them from social, cultural, political, economic and ecological perspectives.
  • Identify and critique a broad range of environmental approaches to the past.

Intellectual skills

  • Critically evaluate claims about nature, environmental change, progress and degradation.
  • Apply environmental perspectives to traditional social, cultural and economic history to formulate new understandings and syntheses. 
  • Utilise methods and sources traditionally found in adjacent disciplines, such as literary studies, geography and the natural sciences, in historical enquiry, in order to broaden our understanding of the past.
  • Analyze primary source material from a variety of genres and contexts (including visual, literary and landscape sources) and use this analysis in their written work and seminar contributions.

Practical skills

  • Independently analyze and organize primary and secondary source material.
  • Constructively contribute to large and small group discussions.
  • Locate information from a variety of sources including books, journals, online databases, and online collections.
  • Collaborate online with peers using cloud-based software, like Google Spreadsheets.

Transferable skills and personal qualities

  • Express themselves effectively and confidently in oral discussion, class debates and written assignments.
  • Work in a team towards a common goal – presenting information with their peers, to their peers through a class presentation.
  • Integrate unfamiliar subjects and methodologies with previous knowledge and understanding of the past.
  • Evaluate the quality, significance, and reliability of information found in books, journals and online.
  • Use primary sources and historiography to make and support arguments about the past.

Employability skills

Analytical skills
Studying environmental history will give students a firm grounding in vocabulary, methods and debates that continue to pervade environmental discourse today, enabling them to access careers that involve an awareness of environmental change in the future.
Group/team working
Small and large group discussions, and group presentation work will develop students¿ interpersonal awareness, listening and negotiating skills.
Oral communication
The critical appraisal of primary and secondary sources will develop critical thinking skills required in a wide range of professional contexts.
Written communication
Presenting information in oral presentations, formal discussions and debates, written assignments and online will equip students with a broad range of communication skills required in professional life.

Assessment methods

Method Weight
Written exam 40%
Written assignment (inc essay) 60%

Feedback methods

  • Written feedback on assessed work; following History department policy all written feedback will provide ‘feed forward’ advice on improving future assignment / essay / exam performance.
  • Additional one-to-one oral feedback on assessed work, presentations and class participation (during consultation hours or by making an appointment).

Recommended reading

Bowerbank, Sylvia, Speaking for Nature: Women and Ecologies of Early Modern England (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2004)

Fudge, Erica, Perceiving Animals: Humans and Beasts in Early Modern English Culture (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2000)

Grove, Richard, Green Imperialism: Colonial expansion, tropical island Edens and the origins of environmentalism, 1600-1860 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996)

Merchant, Carolyn, The Death of Nature: Women, Ecology and the Scientific Revolution (New York: Harper and Row, 1990)

Parker, Geoffrey, Global Crisis: War, Climate Change and Catastrophe in the Seventeenth Century (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2013)

Skelton, Leona, Sanitation in Urban Britain, 1560–1700 (London: Routledge, 2016)

Thomas, Keith, Man and the Natural World: Changing Attitudes in England 1500-1800 (London: Penguin, 1983)

Walsham, Alexandra, The Reformation of the Landscape: Religion, Identity, and Memory in Early Modern Britain and Ireland (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011)

Williamson, Tom, An Environmental History of Wildlife in England, 1650-1950 (London: Bloomsbury, 2013)

Worster, Donald, Nature’s Economy: A History of Ecological Ideas (2nd Edition, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994)

Study hours

Scheduled activity hours
Seminars 33
Supervised time in studio/wksp 11
Independent study hours
Independent study 156

Teaching staff

Staff member Role
John Morgan Unit coordinator

Additional notes

Assessment Methods

Primary source analysis (2 sources) - 1500 words - 20%

Essay - 2500 words - 40%

Exam - 2 hours - 40%

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